U.S. President Donald Trump says he does not know Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU at the centre of the impeachment inquiry, well.
“I have not spoken to him much,” Trump tells reporters outside the White House. “This is not a man I know well.”
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Trump spoke as Sondland testified before House impeachment investigators.
The ambassador has told Congress his dealings with Ukraine were under Trump’s direct orders and that there was a quid pro quo for the president’s benefit.
Sondland told Congress on Wednesday that his dealings with Ukraine were under the direct orders of Trump, in the fourth day of public hearings in an impeachment inquiry that has consumed Washington.
There was a “quid pro quo” in which a White House meeting for the Ukrainians was on the line in exchange for a probe linked to Trump’s rival Joe Biden, Sondland said.
Sondland told lawmakers that he came to understand that military assistance to Ukraine was being made contingent on Kiev publicly announcing a corruption probe linked to Biden, a leading Democratic contender to challenge Trump in presidential elections in 2020.
Sondland, while conducting a balancing act that seemed to be an attempt to vindicate his own behaviour, insisted that top officials above him, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were “in the loop,” about his actions in Ukraine.
Sondland told the House committee carrying out the impeachment inquiry that he and others “played the hand we were dealt” while denying he was engaged in “rogue diplomacy.”
This included having to work through Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer.
“We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the U.S. and Ukraine.
“So, we followed the president’s orders,” said Sondland, a Republican donor who was appointed as EU ambassador by Trump.
“I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters,” said Sondland.
A former hotelier, Sondland has found himself at the centre of the impeachment inquiry.
Sondland said that while he never heard directly from the president that aid was conditioned on any specific investigation, he came to believe this and maintained this conviction even after speaking directly with Trump.
“By the end of the August, my belief was that if Ukraine did something to demonstrate a serious intention to fight corruption, specifically addressing Burisma and 2016 server, then the hold on military aid would be lifted,” Sondland says.
Burisma is a Ukrainian energy company where Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, sat on the board.
The server refers to a conspiracy theory, apparently believed by Trump, about the 2016 election.
There is no evidence either Biden did anything illegal, though the Republicans have raised questions about the son’s role while his father was vice president and running U.S. policy on Ukraine, during the Obama administration.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said.
The testimony is the latest to indicate that Trump primarily was concerned with Burisma, and Biden, and not with corruption in general in Ukraine, as Republicans have tried to present as a line in the president’s defence.
Democrats in the House of Representative have set up an exhausting pace for the inquiry, amid hopes they can wrap up their side before the end of the year.
Trump insists there was nothing wrong with his interactions with Ukraine.
The inquiry in the House is the first step and could lead to impeachment.
A trial, which could lead to the president’s removal, would take place in the Senate, where Trump’s Republicans have a majority.